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Language Access for English Speakers

When we speak on language access, many people automatically assume there must be a non-English language involved. This is incorrect.  For English speakers, the literacy rate for adults across the U.S. averages 88%. This means there is a larger population of people who are unable to access the key takeaways from vital content like safety instructions, resource lists, and shelter applications. As our partners at PCAR state, “People with low reading and writing skills often have less control over their own lives, less understanding of their legal rights, low self-esteem… and ultimately a higher risk of sexual violence. Sexual violence at a young age also can interrupt or interfere with a victim’s education, causing a downward spiral for many victims/survivors and even failure to finish high school. Without a high school diploma, a college degree and reading and writing skills, many victims are unable to compete for well-paying jobs. Victims/survivors often find themselves trapped in low-paying, service sector jobs and unable to meet their most basic needs.” This helps explain why language access is such a large component of violence prevention, as well as the importance of a language access plan for low literacy survivors.

In a world dominated by the written word, emails, and text messages-  struggling with low literacy is stressful. According to The Literacy Project, the average American reads at a 7th grade level, but many read well below that or not at all.  In fact, 54% of Americans between 16-74 years old ( nearly 130 million people) read below a sixth-grade level. That equates to a large population of folks who may not be able to comprehend written materials or access important information like driving directions to a safe haven, emergency plans, or other potentially life-saving or intervention seeking texts. 

Assumptions about a survivor's literary ability  should never be made and it’s important to remember that a person’s literacy level is not a reflection of their intelligence, nor is it  an indicator of laziness or a lack of motivation. Many individuals facing illiteracy faced factors well outside of their control, or did not have opportunities to learn. Yet due to shame and fear of judgment, many survivors are unlikely to outwardly express “I don’t understand what this means” or “I don’t read very well.”  We should assume the reality that many folks are not receiving the help they need because they fall into a low-literacy category which has gone unconsidered.

Thought exercise


Seeds of Literacy recommends this eye-opening activity to help highlight how vital accessible language is. 

“This exercise demonstrates that when you aren’t familiar with the words, comprehension and retention become impossible…

  • Set a timer for 1 minute.
  • Read the entire passage out loud. Don’t cheat by writing it down.
  • Hint: the words are written backwards and the first word is “cleaning.”

GNINAELC – Ot erussa hgih ecnamrofrep, yllacidoirep naelc eht epat sdaeh dna natspac revenehw uoy eciton na noitalumucca fo tsud dna nworb-der edixo selcitrap. Esu a nottoc baws denetsiom htiw lyporposi lohocla. Eb erus on lohocla sehcuot eht rebbur strap, sa ti sdnet ot yrd dna yllautneve kcarc eht rebbur. Esu a pmad tholc ro egnops ot naelc eht tenibac. A dlim paos, ekil gnihsawhsid tnegreted, lliw pleh evomer esaerg ro lio.

After you are done reading out loud, answer the following question: How do you clean the capstan?”



Federal plain language guidelines| US Government

Plain Language Resources | US Government

Literacy Gap Map | Barbara Bush Foundation 



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